Just over a week ago, on Sept. 8, Pope Benedict XVI addressed the Catholic Bishops of Ontario at the Vatican. Such meetings take place every five years and offer the opportunity to every bishop to meet the people who work in the central government of the Church - and for "the Vatican" to meet the pastors and shepherds of the Catholic Church spread throughout the world.
The highlight of the visit is a private meeting of every bishop with the Holy Father, as well as a Papal address to the group.
Prior to travelling to Rome for such visits, the bishops are required to submit, months in advance, a detailed analysis of the state of the Church in their area of the world. Vatican authorities carefully read the reports and offer to the Pope their reflections, concerns and particular emphases that the Pope might then raise in discussions with the bishops.
The Pope then prepares his address to the bishops, based in great part on the contents of the reports that have been submitted by them. Far from being a papal imposition or reprimand, then, this address is more an affirmation of what the bishops, themselves, have reported. The Pope is free to offer his own suggestions and comments.
Distorted media reports and inflammatory headlines last weekend portrayed the Pope's meeting with the Ontario Bishops as: "Pope chastises Canadian Bishops;" "Pope blasts Canada;" "Pope hits out at Canadian laws;" "Papal tongue lashing," etc., etc. The contents of many articles and reports were even worse than the sensational headlines.
For hours afterward, we at Salt and Light Catholic Television Network were inundated with requests for "sound bite" reactions to the "Papal blasting of Canada" - even though the bulk of the media stories had already been written!
It seemed obvious to me that few of the reporters had read the full text that the Pope delivered - even though it was available on the Vatican website, vatican.va.
Instead, they based their articles and stories on what supposedly took place in the "firestorm" of the papal encounter at Castel Gandolfo, the Pope's summer villa outside of Rome. The sad reality was that most media people - and hence their readers and viewers - didn't look closely at Benedict's unambiguous and powerful message to Canada.
Nor did the Ontario Conference of Bishops come out with a press release or commentary as to the important exchange that took place in Rome last Friday morning. They were simply not prepared for such media interest in the Ad Limina visit, both in Rome and here in Canada. Staff people and some of the bishops themselves had not foreseen the possibility of such misunderstanding of the Pope's message. This is a good example of how we must be very proactive in the Church and see such moments as the Ad Limina visit as a very important teaching moment.
The media response to the Pope's address was a hodge-podge of fiery words, invective, misinformation and distortion in numerous blogs, newspaper articles, media reports.
In the interest of setting the record straight, let us try to understand what actually took place and was said:
While Benedict praised Canada for its generous commitment to justice and peace, he said "the split between the Gospel and culture, with the exclusion of God from the public sphere" has severed basic human values from their moral roots.
He lamented what he called the false sense of freedom and tolerance in Canadian culture that has led to "disturbing" trends, such as a law allowing same-sex marriage. "In the name of 'tolerance,' your country has had to endure the folly of the redefinition of 'spouse,'" he said.
The Pope also criticized the continued legality of abortion, saying: "In the name of 'freedom of choice' (Canada) is confronted with the daily destruction of unborn children."
He urged the bishops and the Catholic community to continue to be a strong, united and vocal presence in public and political debate. And he cautioned the bishops to stick to "the truth of human nature" and not succumb to the push and pull of "social trends and spurious demands of opinion polls."
The Pope also assured the bishops that one's Christian faith "brings together reason and culture," and reminded them that the church's mission is "to make God visible in the human face of Jesus." Any watering down of the Gospel message will only weaken Christian identity and debilitate "the church's contribution to the regeneration of society," he said.
One of the key themes of Benedict's pontificate so far has been moral relativism. Relativism, which abandons a sense of there being one eternal truth, not only snuffs out "the sublime goals of life," but it results in "lowering the standards of excellence, a timidity before the category of the good, and a relentless but senseless pursuit of novelty parading as the realization of freedom."
Education, even Catholic education, needs to fight the tide of relativism and uphold the love of truth, he said. Far from chastising Catholic teachers, Benedict acknowledged the great work of Catholic teachers throughout this province.
Over the past week, I have heard from many Catholics and others who have nothing to do with the Catholic church. Both groups said Benedict's stern words serve as warnings not only to Canadian Catholics, but to the people of Canada.
The Pope's words contain many truths that transcend religious divisions - truths about life, love, integrity, hope, God and the pursuit of truth itself.
Our Canadian reality is based on a transcendent vision of life based on Christian revelation that has made us a free, democratic and caring society, recognized throughout the world as a champion of human rights and human dignity. We will only continue to offer this treasure to humanity and history if we preserve what is deep and good and valid in our own heritage.
The first great gift we must preserve is human life itself. The other is the marriage of man and woman, from whom come future generations. We must preserve this gift if we Canadians wish to make further significant contributions to humanity and history.
It was Pope John Paul II who warned that unless families became "protagonists" of "family politics" and take responsibility "for transforming society," they would become the "first victims."
It is no wonder that Benedict should be concerned about Canada at this moment in our history. It was that honest, papal, pastoral concern that was communicated two Fridays ago at Castel Gandolfo in Rome - hardly a screaming match, as was portrayed in the media.